This little short story of the fisherman and the bird is just one of many of my Emerald Coast experiences. To me the incident was both interesting and amusing. It makes quite a statement about how man and nature adapt to each other as our territories cross paths.
Common Beach Birds of the Emerald Coast
Wherever you find surf fishermen on the Emerald Coast, you find birds. In particular, I’m talking about those tall creatures with long, skinny legs, like the one pictured below.
I’m no expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I believe that’s a Blue Heron. Of course there are several other bird species commonly seen on Alabama and northern Florida beaches. One is the Brown Pelican which is actually the state bird of Louisiana, but then I guess the birds don’t really care where the state boundary lines happen to be. Also very common are seagulls.
The gulls pictured above are Laughing Gulls, which seems like a strange name to me. They can be extremely noisy, but it sure doesn’t sound like laughter. I’d describe it as shrieking and squawking. When they fight over food it can get downright vicious. And by the way, please don’t feed them.
Surf Fishermen and Herons
Back to my real focus, it’s the herons that are notorious for hanging out with surf fishermen. Early in the morning, often just before daylight, fisherman trek down the beach pulling their carts laden with gear. Some bring everything from ice chests to lounge chairs to umbrellas. Others keep it simple with only their rods, tackle, and a bucket to sit on.
As soon as they show up at the water’s edge, so do the birds. A fisherman sets up his rod holders, baits hooks, and casts his lines. A heron flies in, lands nearby, and watches quietly.
The fisherman then sits in his chair or on his bucket and settles in to watch his lines and wait. The bird observes from a very short distance away. He remains standing but appears just as relaxed as the man. I’ve taken dozens of photos of surf fishermen and birds. Here are just a few to show you what I mean.
Notice that you’ll never see a flock of herons. For each fisherman or small group of fisherman there will be only one bird. Apparently there is some natural code by which they respect each other’s territory. Of course fisherman observe that same unwritten “rule”. Makes you wonder who learned it from whom?
Anyway, as the morning passes, both the fisherman and the bird keep a keen eye on the lines. Both seem to have unlimited patience. A heron will stand patiently for hours on end watching the lines as closely as the fishermen. The man may be fishing for his own food or just for fun. Some will catch and release, and others will catch and toss in the ice chest for supper or the freezer at home.
The bird has only one agenda, a free lunch. Over time the herons have learned that surf fisherman are great for an easy meal. When a fish is released back into the water, it is often a little stunned which makes it easy prey for the heron.
To make it even easier, sometimes when the catch is very small a fisherman will just toss the fish on the beach right in front of the bird. Of course the joke is that these herons have become passive panhandlers, but why wouldn’t they? Experience has taught them that even if the fish aren’t biting there are still treats to be had. The herons know that when fishermen reel in lines and check hooks they randomly discard small pieces of cut bait. It may not be much, but it’s there for the taking with virtually no effort.
The Fisherman and the Bird
This past summer in Perdido Key I watched a unique scene play out between one fisherman and his heron. The guy caught a Pompano that was small but just big enough to be legal, which is sometimes the best eating size. As the man reeled him onto shore, the heron walked over closer. Just as the fisherman lifted his line to grab his catch, the fish flopped off the hook and landed on the beach at his feet.
Quick as lightning the heron stepped over, scooped up the fish in his beak, and then stepped back a few paces. In that moment time seemed to stand still while the fisherman and the bird just stood there glaring at each other.
Oddly enough the bird didn’t run with his prize. He held his ground as if he knew he had just stolen the guy’s catch and was daring him to do something about it.
The fisherman looked more than a little irked, but he didn’t react immediately. How was he going to get his fish back? I don’t think he wanted to hurt the bird, and chasing it would be futile. The heron could simply take flight and be gone.
Then suddenly he made his decision.
Moving just as quickly as the heron had, the fisherman extended his rod and bopped the bird on the top of his head. It appeared to me that it was a pretty hard hit, but the bird was barely affected. He dropped the fish onto the beach and stepped back a few paces.
Quite to my surprise, the heron didn’t run. He backed up, but barely, and then just stood there, still glaring. I’m not surprised he had no fear of people, but you’d think after that whack on the head he might at least want to keep his distance. He didn’t.
Meanwhile the man picked up his fish and tossed it in his cooler, then set about baiting his hook and tossing the line back out into the surf.
The heron never moved. Laugh if you will, but I swear that bird had an expression on his face that looked like he was thoroughly miffed. When I left, both the fisherman and the bird had gone back to their earlier positions, peacefully watching the lines and waiting.
I’m sure some people will criticize me for saying this, but the truth is that it was downright funny. The bird was not injured, and the fish did belong to the man. The guy caught it fair and square and apparently wanted it for his own dinner. The bird was just indignant that after all his standing around waiting he wasn’t allowed to snatch a free meal.
I didn’t hang around to see how the relationship went for the rest of the day. Hopefully the guy at least threw the bird a little cut bait to reward all his patience.
My only regret is that it happened so fast I didn’t grab my phone quick enough to film it for you. Maybe it’s one of those things you can’t appreciate unless you were there, but I hope I’ve done a decent job of describing it for you.
A Personal Note
And no, the struggle between man and nature and encroaching territories is not lost on me. We must always be conscious of protecting the environments we love to enjoy so much. At the same time that doesn’t prevent me from seeing the humor in life. As well, I am grateful that the governing authorities along the Emerald Coast do an amazing job of protecting wildlife and natural habitats.
As always, I encourage you to be a respectful visitor wherever you go in nature, and leave nothing behind but your footprints. And while you’re there, I hope you enjoy a good chuckle too!
Oh, and by the way, I’m also the kind of person who can find a way to stay positive and find some kind of joy in almost any circumstances. For a great example read my story Surgery and Sightseeing.
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